Local officials rally against water ruling

By Reggie Ellis

On Wednesday, Sept. 15 Exeter Mayor Leon Ooley and City Administrator John Kunkel joined 35 other city officials, county officials and state legislators on the steps of Fresno City Hall to voice their opposition to a recent federal ruling that may affect water for all communities and farmers along the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley.

"If people turn the tap on and water comes out they aren't real interested," said Ooley, who was shocked he and so many others were unaware of the issue.

The ruling - delivered by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton on Aug. 27 - found that Friant Dam operations violate Section 5937 of the state Fish and Game Code, which requires water to be released from a dam for fish. The 41-page decision has "clouded the eastern San Joaquin Valley's future with disappointment and uncertainty," according to the Friant Water Users Authority.

The decision is the most recent outcome in a 16-year battle between environmental groups led by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the operators of the Friant-Kern Canal, led by the Friant Water Users Authority (FWUA).

"Where have the rest of us been the last 16 years?" Ooley said. "I may not have known about it but now I know how I feel about it. I feel strongly about fighting this thing."

One of the speakers was Orange Cove Mayor Victor Lopez, who said his community's water supply is almost all delivered through the canal.

"I cannot believe that fish would take the place of food,” said Lopez. “We are going to fight together in the San Joaquin Valley to reverse this decision.”

Unlike Orange Cove, the City of Exeter does not receive any water from the canal. However, Ooley said that if the irrigation water supply for agriculture is cut in half, farmers will have to turn to ground water for their crops.

"We are already fighting to keep what little groundwater we have, and the situation isn't good now," Ooley said. "This is bad and this is going to affect everyone."

Although the judge did not indicate how much water might eventually be ordered to be released to the river from Friant Dam, the potential could spell possible economic and social catastrophe for counties, communities and residents in parts of five counties.

“We don't know how much water might be involved,” said FWUA Chair Kole M. Upton. “We've only been told current operations result in a violation. But a significant loss of water we have historically used will likely cause downsizing of existing communities and farms in the Friant service area.”

Friant has said it releases 100,000 acre feet of water each year to sustain a variety of fish that are not salmon. One of the plaintiffs in the suit has asked the State Water Resources Board to release 500,000 acre feet of water or 30 percent of the river's runoff.

Any such water releases down the San Joaquin River for environmental purposes would come from the existing supply of water in Millerton Lake that is used to irrigate nearly one million acres of farmland in parts of Merced, Madera, Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties. That water is delivered through the Madera and Friant-Kern canals and supports gross agricultural production in excess of $4 billion a year.

“Restoring the river will benefit everyone,” said NRDC senior attorney Hal Candee. “It will benefit downstream farmers who will get cleaner, more reliable irrigation water. It will benefit the 20 million people in the Bay Area and Southern California who rely on the delta for clean drinking water. And restoring the river's once thriving salmon fishery will help bring back more fishing jobs to our state.”

Background

The environmental coalition led by NRDC initially filed suit on Dec. 20, 1988. Natural Resources Defense Council vs. Rodgers was brought against the FWUA and co-defendant U.S. Bureau of Reclamation because NRDC said the federally owned Friant Dam, above Millerton Lake near Fresno, is subject to the same laws (California Fish and Game Code) that require all other dams in California to release water to sustain fish.

Friant annually releases about 100,000 acre feet of water for into the river to support a live stream below the dam but not all the way to the ocean. Parts of the river are completely dry. Before the dam was built in 1944, the river supported hundreds of thousands of spawning salmon every year, the southernmost Chinook salmon run in North America.

However, the dam delivers water to 15,000 small farms along 150 miles of Eastern San Joaquin Valley. Without that water many of the small agricultural towns and economies would have dried up long ago, such as Exeter, Lindsay, Strathmore and Ivanhoe.

On April 30, 1992, the U.S. District Court in Sacramento rejected the Bureau of Reclamation’s claim to be exempt from California’s Fish & Game Code and later orders them to comply. On Jan. 16, 1997, the District Court rescinded the 14 Friant renewal contracts for violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA). On June 24, 1998, the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's decision.

In 1988, the 9th Circuit Court agreed with NRDC and threatened to invalidate FWUA contracts if there was not an acceptable plan in place to restore the river. FWUA appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On May 17, 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Friant contractors' appeal and promptly sent it back to the 9th Circuit Court. In 2001, both sides began negotiations with an appointed federal mediator. The parties then commissioned several joint studies of how the river could be restored in a balanced manner that would also meet the water supply needs of Friant-Kern water users.

The standoff continued when NRDC decided to release a statement on April 17 that effectively broke off negotiations. In that statement, NRDC said FWUA walked away from a federal mediator's final compromise proposal and, in essence, ended four years of negotiations with a chief mediator of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In an April 18 statement, FWUA Chairman Kole Upton said the proposal by the federal mediator was "not acceptable."

An FWUA spokesman said the "take it or leave it" offer was a good framework to begin serious talks but did not leave enough water after restoration to fulfill the irrigation contracts. The most recent decision will likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. As of press time FWUA had not filed an appeal.

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